Out of the Weeds and Into the Woods
An industry couple talks anxiety, stepping back from the kitchen, and ditching city life for good.
September 21, 2018 ● 10 min read
By Lauren Friel | Art by ChefsFeed
Rian Wyllie and Jen Trebino-Wyllie—both industry heavyweights in their own right—have worked in hospitality for as long as they’ve known each other. Rian might be best known as Executive Chef and Partner for Boston’s beloved industry haunts, Deep Ellum and Lone Star Taco Bar, and Jen for her unassailable front-of-house cred, everywhere from Seattle’s Salumi to Cambridge’s Oleana Restaurant.
After leaving Boston for the promise of a slower life in Maine, the couple signed on to open Portland’s Little Giant, with Rian as Executive Chef and Jen holding down the front-of-house. A year of that new-restaurant grind took its toll, though; Rian has since relinquished executive chef duties for a more peaceful shucker role at Island Creek Oysters’ The Shop, and Jen’s front-of-house prowess has found a new home at Austin Street Brewery.
We talked about the benefits of country living, working for people you admire, and what it means to get older and find balance in the industry.
Why did you volunteer to talk to me today about your mental health?
Jen: I think this conversation is something that everyone should be having now. We have so many different roles that we’re supposed to play at different times in our industry, and it can be overwhelming, no matter who you are.
Rian: With all the things that have happened with mental health in our industry recently...Bourdain hit especially hard. Chefs have become this glorified thing. To the general public, it’s the whole celebrity chef, Food Network bullshit. [But] it’s not just playing with expensive ingredients and making fancy food. There’s a lot of other shit. It’s a 24-hour job. You’re invested mentally, emotionally, physically. It can suck the life out of you.
What’s all the other shit?
Rian: Dealing with the personalities and problems of eight to 40 people, depending on how big your kitchen staff is. I always said that I’m like a middle school guidance counselor. Someone’s sick, someone doesn’t show up, someone’s in jail. Your staff’s problems, the restaurant’s problems, your own—they all belong to you. It’s just a lot. It’s not like you come in every day and it’s clockwork. There’s always something. The grease trap backs up, or, the fridge goes down.
Jen: It’s an operations thing. Most restaurants are set up so there is no HR, there is no person who’s responsible for calling someone to fix the grease trap. You’re doing it. Corporate companies have better boundaries and more support.
Rian: It’s about money. A corporate company can pay five hundred bucks for a plumber to come. But if it’s 8:30 on a Saturday, a restaurant’s not gonna pay a plumber a thousand bucks to come out for a job that’s gonna take him twenty minutes. If you can fix it yourself and save a small business a lot of money? When you’re the chef, you get really good at plumbing.
How do you deal with that?
Rian: It wears on you. When shit used to happen, it [was] the end of the world. Over the years of dealing with this stuff, it becomes less and less of a shock. You just accept it as part of the job. It doesn’t make it easier, but you just accept it more.
Jen: The staffing issue has gotten worse, though. Every year, more restaurants open, more veterans leave the industry for more sustainable lives—better pay, better schedules, just a better lifestyle. The quality of applicants drops. The drug and alcohol situation is worse. I’ve never experienced watching so many people lose so much of their staff to go to rehab. It’s a great thing, obviously, that they’re getting help, but I don’t know of another industry where so many people just don’t show up for their shift one day because they’re in rehab. It just makes it hard.
Was supporting your mental health at all a part of your choice to move out of Boston?
Rian: Yeah. When I was in Boston, I’d been running three restaurants for ten years and working my ass off. But, I had a good situation. I had a good schedule, I was paid really well, and I worked for people I respected the shit out of. [The owners of Deep Ellum and Lone Star] know how to run a business, and I learned a lot working there. But, I just couldn’t be in Boston anymore. We couldn’t afford to continue to live in Boston the way we wanted.
Jen: Every moment we had, we left the city to go be in the woods. That was our happy place. That was our mental release, even if it was just a 36-hour vacation. Not having a plan, and smelling the outdoors, and trying to find good food and good people in small towns, that was it. And now we live in the woods, with a 10-minute commute into Portland.
I struggle with anxiety. It’s not something that has always been part of my life, but, as I’ve gotten older—I don’t know if I care about things more, or what it is, really, but just having an adult life, and dealing with divorce, and marriage, and multiple state moves, and all of that stuff, is not easy. I’m a high-energy person—which is maybe a nice way of saying high-strung—and I’m also a perfectionist. I have extremely high expectations of myself and others. Every day, I work to get better at everything. I think that Rian has a better perspective. It’s part of my learning curve—things aren’t going to go perfectly all the time. Putting things in perspective doesn’t always come naturally to me.
Being in Maine, in general, allows me to be less anxious on a daily basis. The lack of humans here is amazing. The lack of cars, the lack of traffic. All the daily city stuff that contributed so much to my anxiety in Boston and Seattle. I can actually spend my energy focusing on the important things.
Rian: But, [the move] was hard. I came up here and opened Little Giant [as Executive Chef]. I moved to a new state where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a place to live. Jen couldn’t get up here for a few months, so I was mostly alone. I went from working with a restaurant group that I loved and respected to working on a restaurant opening for people I didn’t really know.
In the end, though, Little Giant just wasn’t the right fit. Mentally, I wanted to take a step back when I first moved to Maine, but it wasn’t realistic financially. The timing was finally right a few months ago; I went on vacation this summer, and for the first time in over ten years, I did not get text messages about work shit. That was amazing. No one ever texts me anymore. I have one-third of the emails. It’s great. I feel refreshed. I feel the relief. I don’t have any responsibilities except myself and my wife for the first time in a long time, and that feels good.
Jen: He’s like a completely different person.
Rian: I’m starting to miss the kitchen, but not enough to go work for anyone else at the moment. I’m over it. This industry isn’t worth it to me to do it for anyone else but myself at this point. I’m taking time to figure out what that move is.
You say this industry isn’t worth it for you, but there was a time when it was. What has changed?
Jen: You grow old.
Rian: Yeah, I’m 38 years old. I put a restaurant as the number-one priority in my life for a long time, because you have to if you want to make it successful and run properly. I missed family, friends, birthdays, weddings, vacations—all that shit. There’s a point in your life where it’s like, “Why?” There are other things in life more important than a restaurant.
In Maine, I’m starting to realize that more. We live in the woods, a mile from the ocean. You just realize that life is too short, and there are amazing things out there. To have a restaurant weigh you down—to be stuck in a restaurant every day, all day—it’s not worth it. Especially when you’re so invested, but in the long run it’s not for you. You’re doing it for someone else.
Jen: I think in your thirties, you start to have conversations with yourself that go, “Ok, this is my self-worth. This is what my time is worth.” So, when someone asks you, “Hey, do you want to pick up this event on Wednesday?” It’s your day off, but you’re gonna make $15/hour. So, I’m gonna go work four hours, and it’s gonna screw up my whole day, for sixty bucks. Nope. Not worth it. My day off is more important to me, and I deserve more than that. Obviously, money is money, but you can’t do everything. I think your thirties is a good time to take a look and realize you can’t devalue your time. Like, I know I can’t work six days a week anymore. I did it in my teens and in my twenties, and I just don’t have it in me. I have boundaries now.
How else do you support your mental health while being so invested in the industry?
Jen: I try to set myself up for success and work for people I admire and want to work for. After 19 years, I have pretty high standards for the people I spend my time working with. It’s important. I try to make sure it’s a good fit in every way. That’s part of how I try to take care of myself.
Sleeping and laughing is also extremely important, along with making sure that I see my friends and family.
Rian: Anxiety has been an issue for me in the past, and [I’ve had] trouble sleeping, because of stress. I’ve always been able to work through it and find time to shut myself off for a day, or an hour. Just get outside, go for a hike, go for a swim. You just realize that you need to make time for yourself and the other people in your life that matter. That’s the priority for me now. You see it among older chefs, who close their restaurant to move to a small town. I think it’s just life.
Do you think it’s hard to find people you mesh with to work for?
Rian: There are just so many strong personalities in this industry. It’s hard to find the ones where you’re all on the same page. Like, Drifter’s Wife. They’re the dream team. They just get it. They’re friends first.
Jen: They’re family.
Rian: They’re all working toward the same goal. I respect the shit out of them and what they’ve done. It’s not easy to find.
Jen: Also, I don’t think hopping around from job to job is a good thing, but I think being honest with yourself, and leaving a job that just isn’t the right fit should be acceptable in this industry. I think we should be happy when someone acknowledges that something just isn’t working. It should be an okay thing to say, and it isn’t right now. People take it personally when someone leaves a job, but everyone should be able to do what’s best for them. Otherwise, everyone’s just miserable, and it’s toxic.
How do you support each other as a couple? Do you check in with each other about your mental health?
Jen: Absolutely. For us, it’s part of normal communication. We’re extremely close, and I’m so lucky to be with someone who’s in my industry. He has more experience than I do—he’s been executive chef and partner, whereas I’ve never come close to that level. I’ve learned so much from him, and he knows me better than anyone. He can tell me when I need to put my foot down or relax. We communicate a ton, on a daily basis, whether we’re working together or not. We do try to make sure we’re there for each other, either via text or in-person. That’s a big part of the reason why he left Little Giant; it was more important for me to see him in a happy place, mentally. No matter what the money is, it’s not worth it.
We’re both in this industry, so we can see the signs, too. If I come home from work every night, and I’m in a bad mood, he can see the signs. We see everything unfolding together.
Rian, how has taking a step back from an exec chef role affected your mental health?
Rian: I’m sleeping better. I’m happier. I’m working 35 hours a week, not 60 to 80 hours a week. I don’t have the weight anymore. I’m just doing me. I have a lot more time on my hands to enjoy our new home. It gives me more time to think about what’s next. I’m glad I did it. Physically, emotionally—it’s all better. I needed a break until I dive back in, whenever that is.
Why do you think this idea of happiness in this industry is so hard to find? Why did you feel like you kind of had to leave to find it?
Jen: I think the industry just isn’t set up for it. It’s always just, “This is the way it is.” In front-of-house, you don’t expect great benefits or a nine-to-five schedule, but that’s maybe what you’re looking for—to be out late and to make a ton of money. In back-of-house, working with your hands is very sensual, and very creative. It’s like painting, or any other art form. The pay isn’t great, but, I think, for a lot of people, as long as they’re making a living wage and getting to do what they love, that works for them.
But, at the end of all of it, you have to be ok with the lifestyle. If you don’t like the lifestyle, that’s a problem. Your lives are very different from the rest of the world, and it’s something people have to get used to. It just isn’t the healthiest lifestyle—it’s work hard, play hard.
Rian: You don’t eat properly, you don’t get enough sleep, you’re stressed. You get home late, you haven’t eaten all day, you drink three beers, go to bed.
Jen: And then you have the emotional part of your day-to-day. You’re polishing your glasses, you set up your mise en place, you do the same side work you do every day. Then, you open the doors, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know who’s going to come in, you don’t know if someone’s going to have an allergic reaction, you don’t know if your pipes are gonna back up. It’s the unknown.
Rian: I think you could say that of any business owner, though.
Jen: But the x-variable is all the people coming through your door. They’re unpredictable. Say you’re the hostess. You’re the first person guests meet. If they’re in a bad mood, you try to make them happy. That is actually what your job is. [In the front], you’re dealing with a lot that changes every day. You have to think on your feet all the time and do emotional 180s constantly.
Rian: You have to be in a good mood even when everyone else isn’t.
Despite all that, though, you both have devoted your entire lives to working in hospitality. Separately, but also as a couple. Why?
Jen: I’ve tried other jobs. It literally has never lasted more than a month. I keep coming back. Finding a partner who gets that is amazing. Knowing that I’m not alone and that I can always ask him for support—it feels like we’re such a solid team. This industry doesn’t overtake our life—it is our life.
Rian: And now we’re bringing that into our home. We want people to visit us, we want it be comfortable and enjoyable. We want to host our friends and family here more. We’re taking everything we’ve learned and experienced in this industry, and we’re focusing on our quality of life.